Archives for category: Uncategorized

Mowing2_edited

Mowing1_editedI live on the land my grandfather farmed for a good portion of his life. So whenever I’m outside I’m aware of the fact that the earth is salted with his blood and his sweat and I’m sure some of his tears. Pappaw was a man who prayed and a man who thought deeply. More than once I’ve caught him “prayin'” while he worked. I never spoke of it to him…it was just as much who he was as the hands with missing finger tips, lost working at the paper mill. That was the Pappaw I knew.

When my parents bought the land and built a house on it in 1986, my Daddy farmed it. When 1993 arrived and he suddenly found himself retired at age 54, he grew beans and corn. He loved to get out and work the earth early in the mornings. He’d get his “orders” ready and well before the heat of the day there’d be bushels of beans, freshly picked, and dozens of ears of corn–all waiting for the customers who’d be coming that day.

I heard Daddy say more than one time that working in the garden or yard was his time with the Lord. In fact, his favorite hymn spoke directly of that–

“I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear
The son of God discloses

And he walks with me
And he talks with me
And he tells me I am his own…
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.”

Daddy was a good farmer. He worked hard. He prayed hard. His crops–be they sorghum cane for molasses in the fall, or tobacco, corn, Shiitake mushrooms, beans or potatoes–always “made”. I tend to believe that’s due in part to the fact he was also a man of prayer who used his gardening or hoeing or harvesting time to catch up with his Lord.

The ONLY time I recall a crop failing was in the fall just before he got so sick. Daddy had raised sorghum cane all summer with the intent of making molasses one last time (we didn’t know it was the last). I’d pushed for it because I wanted MY kids to have the chance to learn what has become a lost art. I remembered the fun of the days growing up when we cooked down the cane juice. Friends and family came from everywhere to be part. Mom even let us stay home from school to be there. Daddy always “cooked off” the syrup–he had a knack for knowing when it was time to remove it from the heat and his syrup was golden, not dark like some. I can still see him holding up a jar of molasses, still warm with a light golden froth on the top, grinning widely and saying “Ain’t that purty?” He’d be there long before daybreak, grinding juice using the old grinder he’d bought and hooked up to a Ford Pinto engine, getting the fire just right, making sure everything was where it should be. I never liked the taste of molasses, but my lands I LOVED making them.

Back to the crop that year. One day just before we were to show up to make the molasses, early in the morning, Daddy called me. “Bethany, I’m not going to make these molasses.” he said. I was stunned. “Why not, Daddy? We’re all ready! People are coming in from out of town and everything!” His reply was “I was working down there yesterday and I was praying (remember–he always prayed while he worked in the garden), and I told God that if it wasn’t his will for me to make the molasses this year, to give me a sign. Later in the evening we had a storm. Every single bit of that cane is laying flat on the ground. It’s laying in such random patterns that there is no way we could harvest it successfully and use it. There’s too much damage.”

At that I said “But Daddy! We can cut it by hand! We’ve done that before–cut it by machete instead of machine!” “No, Bethany. I asked for my sign and I got my sign. I’m not making them.”

He stuck by that. We didn’t make molasses that year. We never made molasses again. I’d never seen anything he put his hand to fail before. He became more human and less Daddy in my eyes as I watched it happen. And by the next spring at planting time, it was obvious he was not ever going to be well enough to grow that cane or make the molasses again.

I’m constantly thinking of how I always used to view this plot of land–usually from a row, with a hoe in my hand OR a box of twine strapped to my back so I could tie up the beans so they didn’t run on the ground. Those times were hot and, to be fair, NOT fun. Setting tobacco was fun. Hoeing it, topping it, cutting it and handing it–not so much. Hoeing cane? ARGH. Topping, stripping and cutting it–not quite as argh but still not fun. Tomatoes, strawberries, squash…they all require tending in order to produce.

Why did Daddy love farming so much? The man had a degree and was a senior process engineer at BASF. He didn’t have to farm. We SURE didn’t need all the food he grew, although having a full freezer and pantry was a blessing. I gotta believe that when he was in the garden, he was with God. That those many hours he spent doing all that distasteful work (to me) were sweetened by the fact he was hanging with his Father.

So when I get on that big old mower, like today, and make my way back and forth across this plot of land which has been christened with the sweat, blood and tears of my Daddy AND my grandfather (and also that of my aunts, uncles, cousins and whomever Pappaw could find to work it), I sort of feel like I’m on holy ground. When I sing at the top of my lungs because I know no one can hear, it tends to be songs of faith. And when I stop singing and start listening…I can hear that same voice, calling to me and talking to me, reminding me I am his own…showing ME what to do and what to avoid…

And the joy WE share as we tarry there…none other has ever known.

Growing up as I did, there was very little talk of the Spirit being “poured out” upon anyone. That was for those Pentecostals who did the foot washing and speaking in tongues and such. We were of the “intellectual knowledge” ilk–no shouting, very few “Amen”s spoken during preaching. We had a bulletin and by golly we followed it to the letter. No disruptions or upsets in our services–come in, sing, give offerings, listen, pray, dismiss. That’s it. We liked the box God was in and the familiarity of knowing what was going to happen on Sunday mornings. And Sunday nights. And Wednesday nights. We said our prayers because we should and we read our Bibles because we should. That’s what good Christians do. I taught Sunday School. I played the piano for worship and Vacation Bible School. Church was my social life, as it always had been.

Until it happened.

Until God showed up.

There was a restlessness of spirit among us…a feeling that there was more to faith than what we were doing, but we just didn’t know what. There’d been rumors of prayer meetings where prayers were answered. My grandmother’s cold blue foot, starved of blood for well over three hours due to a clot, was healed, and the surgeon who came through the door to take her to remove it found the foot alive, pink, healthy and undamaged. Another man who’d been diagnosed with untreatable cancer was healed. My own Daddy, stricken with an unidentified illness which kept him flat on his back (literally) for 2 weeks due to unbearable dizziness, prayed, accepting the task God had called him to do, and was healed instantly. There was some strange stuff going on. Weird, even. And a bit far-fetched.

I wasn’t surprised at the dreams I had during that time. After all, I always have strange ones. Vivid ones which linger sometimes into the next day, affecting my mood and draining me. But this was different.

In one of them I dreamed I was in the church where I spent my life from age 9 until I was nearing 40. I was alone in the classroom which was for little children (we called them “Beginners”), with Daddy. We were just talking, but I happened to look up and saw this strange undulating cloud of clear plasma–almost like clear hair gel–with sparkles within it. I smelled the most wonderful, light, beautiful aroma–one I’d never smelled before. I looked at Daddy and he was smiling with glee. He said “It’s ok! Just watch!”, so I turned my eyes back to the ceiling. There, in the midst of the plasma, were two hands, reaching down from above, reaching for MY hands. I was stunned. And afraid. Daddy, still grinning, said “No, I promise! It’s wonderful! Go ahead!”

So I reached up, tentatively, for those hands. They were strong, tough hands. Long narrow fingers wrapped around mine and lifted me off the floor, holding me tightly as they allowed me to dance in mid-air, flipping over and under, laughing as Daddy laughed down below, and all the time feeling this intense joy and unbelievable peace. Those strong fingers, hard but not calloused, held me firmly yet gave me freedom to do things I couldn’t do before. I recall clearly thinking “If I can touch my back to the ceiling, I will KNOW this is real!” And I did. With no trouble. It was as if I was no longer hampered by my body and its human-ness. I was graceful, light, filled with joy and able to do anything so long as those hands held me. Daddy, when I caught a glimpse of him, had taken off his glasses and was wiping tears from his eyes–tears of joy as he laughed and rejoiced at what I was getting to experience.

All too soon, FAR too soon, I felt the hands gently lowering me to the floor again. I cried out “No! Don’t go!” But the hands had already released mine and were withdrawing through the “sparkly stuff” and away. I began to cry…I didn’t want that sense of joy and wonder and amazing grace (yes, GRACE–for the first time in my life, there was gracefulness!) to go away. But Daddy said “No…don’t cry! He will come back again…I promise.” The sparkly stuff withdrew, as well, leaving behind the familiar white ceiling. And the sweet scent that had filled the air still filled my nostrils as I awoke.

I wondered over that dream for many years…through our leaving the comfortable church in which it took place, and through the beginnings of the new church, born during that “time of more”, as I like to think of it.  That sweet aroma which filled my nostrils during the dream was one I never encountered until meeting new believers who had so much to teach me about “more”–it was Frankincense. I knew it immediately when a bottle of anointing oil containing Frankincense was brought to anoint those for whom we prayed. It is still one of my favorite scents…and reminds me of that dream and the feeling of freedom while I was held in those hands.

The “sparkly stuff” I had such a hard time describing (in my mind it was “Dippity Doo with silver sparkles inside”) reappeared at times when the Spirit was moving among us in a mighty way. Someone finally told me that what I’d seen was a “Glory Cloud” (I’d never heard of such). The things I’d seen and experienced in that dream were real. And I had no idea they even existed. I had no inkling that I would learn of them from people I’d never before met, whose lives were being lived in Florida, Raleigh, northern California, South Carolina, and other places miles away the night the dream came to me. People who happened to end up in Western North Carolina just at the time I was ready for “more”.

The people who clarified that dream to me are scattered far and wide now. Some are in Heaven (Daddy and Marianne), some are in New Mexico, or Oklahoma…others have simply gone away, their season in my life over. I won’t forget them, no more than I will forget the “more” they explained to me.

And that sweet sweet aroma that filled my nostrils;  the time I danced gracefully with my Father as my father watched with joy–I won’t forget that, either.

I hear lots of folks complain about the “entitlement” mentality some people have; blaming our social ills on the fact that when we grew up, everyone got a trophy or ribbon for “participating” and “winning” wasn’t necessary in order for a competitor to get an award.

I’m one of those who’d never have won a ribbon or trophy for physical competitions were it not for the kindness of “participation” awards. Mom always said I could “trip over the flowers in a rug”. This was true. Still is. It’s not that I didn’t WANT to be great at basketball, or running, or the dreaded flexed-arm hang–I simply didn’t have the ability to excel at sports. Give me a cerebral task and I’m fine. Tell me I have to dribble a basketball and run, and I will fail. EVERY time.

Dressing out and going to PE was the most stressful part of any day. I knew I sucked, and I knew everyone else knew this, too. The long-legged lean gals who could easily run suicides till the cows came home were in their element. I was more like oil in water. I still feel the shame of it all. Who wants to pick the kid who never wins? The kid who, up until that year, was the “fat” one in the class?

I remember one day during PE my dear friend picked me to be her wheelbarrow race partner. I knew I was in trouble before I ever hit the start line. SHE was one of those coordinated athletic types. The only “coordinated” I was was when my gym shorts matched my t-shirt. Yet she chose me to be her partner. Did I mention how sweet she was/is? And I say that without malice–she really thought she could help me.

So when the time arose, she took first turn as the wheelbarrow–flying down the gym and back with me holding her ankles and her arms propelling her far faster than my legs could ever propel me. No big deal. Then came MY turn to be the wheelbarrow. I had no upper body strength. By the time we made it down the gym and back, me falling onto my face or stomach at least 25 times, the entire class AND the teacher were laughing until tears rolled down their faces. Everyone else had finished minutes earlier. I laughed, too. What else do you do when you are 14 years old and so embarrassed and mortified that you’d like to crawl into a hole and die? It was like asking the scholastically challenged kids to recite Shakespeare, or to participate in a spelling bee.

I loved cheerleading. I had been a cheerleader at Hominy Valley (the local “junior” sporting group) for several years, and was a cheerleader at my school in 7th grade. When time for 8th grade tryouts arrived, very few of the girls from the year before were participating, so the sponsor asked me to teach the “new girls” the cheers we’d done the year before. I did. We practiced twice a week, for several weeks, getting the routines down pat before tryouts.

The school asked cheerleaders from the high school to pick the girls who would be on the squad for the upcoming year–and I was not chosen. I was crushed. When asked later, the high school gals said it was because my thighs touched. (This was eons before “thigh gap” became a recognized “thing”.) I don’t know if that was the truth, or if I was simply not good enough. Either way, the one semi-athletic thing I’d felt strongly I could do turned out to be something else I could not. And, despite having cheered for five years while in elementary school, I didn’t try out for the football/basketball cheerleading squad at the high school. I went instead for the wrestling cheerleading squad–one which didn’t carry the “popularity” perks of the other, but which nonetheless was something I enjoyed and felt “safe” doing. We didn’t get asked to perform at pep rallies and such (those were for the other squad–even during wrestling season), but we did have fun. I cheered all four years–earning my letter jacket the second. I never wore it, though, because I felt in my heart I wasn’t really good enough to do so–I hadn’t earned it.

Thankfully, after my freshman PE requirement was met, I never again had to “dress out” for PE. Any sporting events in which I participated were voluntary. The load on my back and mind was lightened immeasurably and FINALLY it felt I had a chance at being noticed for my strengths instead of my weaknesses. The things I KNEW I was good at (writing, editing the school newspaper, the Drama team [we made it to the state competition], being part of the Health Occupations club) didn’t award letters.

The difference between most athletic competitions and those of a more cerebral nature is that cerebral competitions were fewer, and no one was FORCED to participate. I can remember three academic competitions our K-8 school held–Spelling Bee, Mental Math and then an essay competition sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution. THREE competitions in areas in which I had hope, versus 180 days per year of the humiliation of perpetual ineptitude which was PE and anything else athletic. I always placed in the “brain” contests. They tended to be far more low-key and had smaller audiences than the physical ones, though. And maybe it was my own perception, based upon my history, but they seemed not to matter nearly as much as the athletic contests which I was doomed to fail. (Although, looking back on it, the sweet gal who was my wheelbarrow partner also beat me in the Spelling Bee competition when I spelled “b-i-s-q-u-i-t”. She got it right. Maybe she WAS sneaky! No…not her. Never her.)

I wouldn’t ever win an award in sports. But it took far more courage for me to show up and participate than most kids could imagine. I was usually physically nauseous by the time PE class rolled around. I knew what was coming–agonizing moments of perpetual failing observed by other students and the teacher. It wasn’t playing, or fun–it was legislated emotional torture. I showed up, though. For five years in elementary school and another four in high school I participated in “athletic” activities. I garnered my will and wits, fought through butterflies and nausea, and gave it my best. I was not athlete material. My best would never win a race or a game. Were it not for those “participation” trophies earned simply for being there, I’d have nothing to show for the hardest part of those nine years of my life.

I hated failing. I still do. And I simply could not do any better. I knew those trophies I had were not signs of victories–they were tokens awarded to those who didn’t win. My name wouldn’t be engraved anywhere for future generations to come see and marvel at, because I wasn’t an athlete. Only now am I beginning to see that doesn’t make me a failure; that giving my best is what matters. Somehow I never got the message that my best was good enough.

Maybe I missed hearing it because of all the laughter.

Today, after five years of threatening, I decided I WAS going to use the mower. This mower:

No, the cute dude isn't an option.

No, the cute dude isn’t an option.

The one my Dad bought to mow this big field in which my parents house (and now my Aunt’s and mine) sits.

Daddy taught me to mow with it the first summer he had it. It seemed a splurge at the time–but I’d watched the poor guy mow the field/yard for 15 years using a standard riding mower. It took all day. I didn’t begrudge him the mega-mower, and loved how much he delighted in it. Aside from the fact it was way cool.

It’s a daunting machine–no steering wheel, no gas or break/clutch pedals. You run it with two levers (one left, one right) which you push or pull to go forward or back, their positions determining the arc of the curve you’re going to make. I knew I needed a brief refresher course, so I chose to start in the back yard (as in WAYYYY back in the back–along the fence line at the edge of the property, where no one could see my awkward attempts at keeping the thing running, much less MOWING with it).

Once I finally figured out the combination of lever positions, key, brake, speed of engine, seatbelt use, and apparently barometric pressure and level of ether in the atmosphere, I jolted my way forward…along the hayfield which borders the land on the right, figuring if my line wasn’t exactly “straight” the hay might hide it, as opposed to the house, which wouldn’t fare too well if I got “sy-gogglin”.

First pass, not too shabby. I got more familiar with the controls (and didn’t stall the engine). Soon I was almost zipping along (although “zipping” is relative–someone could’ve out-walked me I’m sure), mowing a wide swath and singing “Carolina In the Morning” at the top of my lungs. (The fact no one could hear me sing giving me confidence rather than serving as a warning.)

45 minutes into the mowing experience, and feeling giddily confident at my skills (yet still NOT going TOO fast), I decided the front deck was high enough off the ground that I could definitely mow far enough under it to hit the *cough* foliage which was growing where the sun hit. I executed a glorious 45 degree right turn, scaling very close to the foundation of the house and gloating in my skill and knowledge, paying NO mind to the fact that there is no engine housing in FRONT of the driver on these machines. There is nothing but a low deck…unlike all riding mowers I’d ever used in the past. And..before I knew it…my shins were trapped between a mower seat and the cross support on the deck.

As I frantically looked for “REVERSE” (there is no stick shift on this thing!) I realized the pressure from the mower was not decreasing. An unbridled “OWWWWW!” rose in my throat and as I screamed (a scream NO ONE COULD HEAR), I had the presence of mind to let go of the two “left and right” levers. At least the forward pressure eased. I had not yet decided how to relieve it completely, but once blood flow was restored I grasped a faint glimmer of hope–a memory–my Dad saying “You pull back to back up and push forward to go forward”!! I grabbed both levers, the scream waning as I ran outta breath, and pulled back. SUCCESS!!

*BUMP*

“Crap!!!!”

I wasn’t exactly “straight” on my approach…the left side of the mower was forward of the right side and I could only move the mower enough to relieve the pressure, not enough to disentangle myself and my poor shins. I could only back up so far before bumping the foundation of the house. Therein lay the problem.

I managed to wiggle the mower back and forth, left and right, enough to pull my feet up onto the seat where I was sitting, thereby avoiding pinching the shins again, and was able to pull farther under the porch and make a hard turn to the right as I reversed, freeing the mower (and myself).

I was afraid to look down. The pain was excruciating and I (being who I am) was convinced I was now at the minimum sporting bi-lateral breaks in my tibiae and fibulae…but more likely spurting dark arterial blood from my amputated lower legs. Yeah. Definitely an amputation-level accident.

I stopped the mower (again without using a brake–you move the levers to a “neutral” position to stop). I peered down at my shins…and noticed two deep purple horizontal lines across them. SERIOUSLY?? I pin myself between a huge piece of lawn equipment and (what used to be) a mighty, sharp-cornered great fir, believing that once the pressure was released I would bleed out and die…and I get two (line-shaped) BRUISES?? No breaks? Not even a crack? ARGH!!!

At this point I couldn’t decide my next move. Do I continue mowing and risk blood clots heading to my brain (because it’s obvious those tiny bruises are clot-making machines), or do I park the mower, admit defeat (to my daughter who told me “DO NOT MOW!!”) and retreat to the house for ice bags?

That was a stupid question. I levered-up and started mowing again as if nothing had happened. I was fairly certain that the additional minutes of mowing would reveal those bruises to actually be far larger than expected. And motley. Very motley. Gory even.

I completed the front yard, even making a couple of passes along the road so the grass was blown off into my yard. I took the show to the back yard, bemoaning my aching shins, and mowed there, too. Looked down at the shins again…not even the skinny horizontal purple lines remained. To be fair, there was (and still is) significant pain. There’s just no outwardly visible sign that I did, indeed, cheat death at the hands of a mower and a deck. “Disappointing” doesn’t begin to describe it.

It’s been 8 hours. The mower is back in its shed, the grass growing again at an alarming rate (I’m sure). And the shins still ache like a toothache. But only I know this. For my shins are Ninja shins–they bruise on the inside! They don’t SHOW pain! (To quote Eddie Murphy in “Trading Places”).

I will mow again next week. Kubota, we will meet again.

The tragedy at Sandy Hook, and the tornado which tore through two elementary schools in Moore, OK, brought again to the forefront the actions of teachers who, with no thought for their own safety, shielded their students from danger. We’ve heard the stories repeated of the teacher who hid out in the bathroom of her classroom, dragging a bookshelf over to cover the door then covering her students’bodies with her own as a gunman stalked the school hallways. I heard this morning teachers telling of how they had their students crouch in the normal position and cover their heads with their backpacks or books to serve as more protection. Other teachers had shielded their students beneath their own bodies as the walls of the elementary school fell in the maelstrom around them.

It made me think.

I’ve always believed teaching isn’t a job–it is a calling. Parents often say “Boy I’m glad I’m not a teacher! I couldn’t handle those kids all day!”, and you can usually see in their eyes that behind their laughter there’s a piercing certainty they aren’t kidding. It takes a special someone to take on the responsibility of fully educating a group of 20+ children, being their mentor for 180 days while attempting to coerce out of them the very best they have. These aren’t just educators–they are nurses, counselors, friends, leaders, disciplinarians and advocates. They’ll laugh at the jokes about “The best part of teaching is summer break” spoken around them, knowing that no teacher is ever, truly “off” work. It’s often a thankless job, the only reward of merit that “Aha!” moment when a student grasps something which had been just out of reach for a long time.

Yet…people flock to the profession. Women, especially. And when crises arise, they willingly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the ones in their care. I’ve struggled with that issue. I have three children of my own. Should I risk my life (WOULD I risk my life) to save someone else’s child and risk leaving mine without a Mother? Would I have the chutzpah to act in the face of danger, or would I cower in fear? When push comes to shove…what would I do?

Today as I walked into school it was with a new set of eyes. Monday morning a bustling elementary school stood where now there is only rubble in Moore, OK. Today I walked into a bustling elementary school standing where it was when I last saw it. I tried to imagine the bricks caving in on us as winds turned chairs, desks, pencils into projectiles. I looked into 19 little faces full of promise and hope and futures unlived, and wondered if the calling I feel would be strong enough to lead me to sacrificing my own life for theirs. It became one of those situations you never want to face–like having to choose which of your children to save from drowning if you could only save one. That prospect has always horrified me. HOW do you choose? Can you choose?

As I wrangled with it all, I looked into little blue eyes and brown eyes and green eyes and felt that old familiar tug on my heart and knew. I just knew.

Perhaps that is part of the calling. God calls you to a task, and equips you to meet that task. Just as some folks would rather go to war than face a classroom full of students every day, I’d rather spend time making a difference in their tiny lives than any other job I know. And I have no doubt that if the moment of decision were to come, I’d protect them with all I had.

It’s a calling…but it’s also a sacred trust…and those tiny lives yet to be lived and hearts to be molded and shaped are not to be trifled with. I’m blessed to even have the chance to touch them.

“You can DO better than that…” That phrase, used by my Daddy when I’d disappointed him, has remained in my mind all these years. I hear it when I know I’ve failed to meet the bar in my life although I could have and should have. And I hear it now, when I think about CT, Virginia Tech, Columbine and the countless other tragedies which are chipping away at the heart of our nation.

“You can DO better than that.”

We Christians SHOULD be able to do better. We SHOULD be reaching these hurting people and telling them of God’s love for them…offering hope and a sense of comfort so they don’t feel so alone. Why aren’t we?

There’s a sense among us that we should avoid those engaged in sinful behavior; that as if by association we somehow will become sullied by hanging with these folks, eating with them, inviting them to our homes, welcoming them into our lives. And there is a sense of truth to some of that; we do have to be diligent in protecting our own families from harm that could come at the hands of others. But how many truly spiritually needy people show up at church on Sundays? When’s the last time a strung-out, dreadlock-laden man wandered into your church on Sunday morning begging for prayer? How about a skinny agitated woman whose fingertips are stained with spray paint, frantically seeking Jesus?

Jesus knew something we’ve forgotten–the Good News does no one any good if we keep it within the church. We HAVE to get out among everyone else…sinners, pagans, non-believers…or we cannot share the light within us which keeps us going despite all else. They aren’t going to come to us. We need to DO better.

Every Christmas Eve I think back on Christmases of yore (since this is my fiftieth, there are quite a few to ponder!) and how they were spent. I’ve been so blessed to have GOOD memories of GOOD times among those I love.

The “Holiday Season” is a huge whirlwind in my life. My birthday and Christmas are crammed into 4 all-too-brief days and I’m left without a big celebration for the rest of the year. My parents never “cheated” me out of a birthday because it was so close to Christmas–they always took care to keep my birthday separate and make it special. But as I’ve aged I’ve noticed it IS a bit of trouble to celebrate a birthday when so much else is going on…and it tends to slide past with little fanfare. That’s not a bad thing–it’s what it is. 🙂

Back to growing up. My Daddy was the fourth of 6 surviving children (one older brother died as an infant–there was a total of 7 children). My grandparents raised their brood in a 3 bedroom (originally 2 bedroom) house which always seemed on the verge of bursting at the seams. I’ve never known another group of siblings to love each other like Daddy and his did. Christmas Eve was the time we ALL gathered (6 adults and their spouses, a total of 12 grandchildren for most of the years) at Mammaw’s and Pappaw’s for Christmas. The excitement from my birthday just two days before only grew as we piled into the car to head to their house. My cousins from far away and from nearby were always there. We exchanged gifts, ate and ate, laughed, sang, laughed more, ate more and sweated in the close quarters till we ran outside to cool off, then dashed back indoors so we didn’t miss any fun. Pappaw and Mammaw had a tree cut from off the place somewhere, decorated with garland and tinsel and huge lights. The tree and presents weren’t the best part, though–the family was. My aunts, always dressed up and makeup and hair done to perfection. (I have to confess I cannot go out in public without makeup because of their influence–my Aunt Chris taught me that lesson early on.) The boy cousins–always “rough housing” and picking at each other and us girls–until they got a bit older and some turned to playing guitar for us to sing along. The girl cousins who lived out of town and whose visits were so greatly anticipated. Christmas Eve became a whirl of laughter, music, singing, cigarette smoke, perfume and LOVE…so MUCH love…it wrapped us tightly and held on to us through the rest of the year.

Daddy’s siblings were so great. They loved to sit around the table in the tiny kitchen and share jokes. The laughter still rang in our ears when we’d dash outside to take a peek at the sky to see if we could spot Santa’s sleigh. They cut each other no slack, yet they were never ever ugly to each other or critical of each other. The undercurrent in that entire family was “we are SO blessed to be part of each others’ lives!”

When we were there, my mind would slip up on the fact of “It’s Christmas Eve!!” and shivers would run through my body. After all–it was the night before the “BIG day”! When my aunts and Daddy gathered around the piano and sang Christmas carols, they seemed bigger than life. Were it not for the tight confines and unbearable heat, it was Christmas card-perfect. I’d watch Mammaw and Pappaw singing along as they sat side-by-side…holding hands…the occasional tear coursing down Pappaw’s cheek and his quick move to wipe it away before it was noticed. After all…these were THEIR babies. Pappaw sometimes read the story of Christ’s birth from the book of Luke to us as the evening wore on…and the warmth of togetherness was palpable.

Soon…all TOO soon…it was time to put on our coats and pile into our cars again. Again “It’s Christmas EVE!!!” would come rushing to the front of my mind and I’d find my nose plastered to the window of the car as I stared at the stars hanging over our valley, looking for Santa’s sleigh. The drive home was one of trying to see stars above the faint ridges which loomed in the darkness, enfolding us. It WAS home. It IS home. This valley…the place where my Daddy lived all his life…the place where my Pappaw and Mammaw brought their young family to live out their lives. And the place where I will live out mine.

I was outside earlier and “It’s Christmas Eve!!” hit me again. I found myself scanning the skies above the ridges, looking just as I did when I was a child. Mammaw and Pappaw are gone…only three of their children remain…their grandchildren are spread from Texas to NC, and their great-grandchildren have children of their own. However, their love for each other and for their family, and their deep faith, has touched us all.

On this Christmas Eve, as my life has placed me back on the land Pappaw used to work to provide for his family, I am thankful that God blessed me with the Christmas Eves past, and with the example of a family whose focus wasn’t on gifts, but was on love.